When people think of addiction and drug abuse, seniors are probably the last group that comes to mind.
While estimating the number of older adults who are problem drug users is difficult, experts believe that between 12 and 15% of older adults who seek medical attention are misusing a prescription medication. That adds up to nearly one million seniors. Unchecked, researchers say that by 2020 the number of older adults misusing or abusing medications will be closer to 2.7 million.
We thought these numbers were startling enough that it was important to share this information with our readers and to encourage each of you to share this with friends and colleagues who may be caring for an aging parent.
Understanding the Difference between Drug Misuse and Drug Abuse
The first step to learning more about this dangerous trend is to understand the difference between someone who is misusing a drug and one who is abusing prescriptions. It is an important distinction to make.
While both problems can have deadly consequences, drug misuse is different than drug abuse. And among older adults, it is drug misuse that is escalating.
- Misuse: Drug misuse occurs as the result of using a prescription drug inappropriately. For example, an older adult who lives with pain from a debilitating case of arthritis might take too much pain medication when the disease flares up. Or when one who suffers from chronic insomnia ingests a higher dosage of a sleep medication in an attempt to get a good night’s rest.
- Abuse: Drug abuse, on the other hand,is taking a drug purely for recreational purposes. It might be a prescription medication, but it was one that was prescribed for a different reason, such as a pain medication following a surgery they’ve long recovered from. Or it could be a medication prescribed for a spouse or other family member.
The Warning Signs of Drug Misuse in Older Adults
The signs and symptoms of aging can mimic prescription drug misuse, creating a challenge when one is trying to determine if an older adult is in danger. A few of the common signs to be aware of include:
- Frequently refilling prescriptions
- Quick to anger and easily agitated
- Balance problems and an increasing number of falls
- Change in personality or disposition
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Daytime drowsiness or sleepiness
- Sleeping too much or too little
What to Do if You Suspect a Loved One is Misusing Drugs
If you think an older adult you love might be misusing a medication, an easy way to check is to look at their prescription bottles. Use the date on the medication bottle to determine the number of pills they should have left. If the number doesn’t add up to what it should be, your suspicions might be justified.
The next step is to try to talk with them about the potential problem. Keep in mind that they might become angry or aggressive when you do. If they feel their behavior is justified and necessary to allow them to live without pain, they may not be agreeable to getting help.
If the conversation doesn’t go as you hope, you may need to notify their doctor. Because of privacy laws, the physician may not be able to discuss the matter with you. But it will alert them to the fact that you believe there is a problem.
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